Thomas the Unbeliever

Note: This review of James Wood’s The Book Against God (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) was originally published in Books and Culture and reprinted in RP in Australia.

James Wood has established himself as one of the most influential critics in the English-speaking world. His first book, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (1999), included an account of his upbringing in a strongly evangelical family and his loss of faith in his teens, and skepticism toward religion in general and Christianity in particular is a recurring theme in the brilliant essay-reviews he contributes to The New Republic and elsewhere. It is no surprise, then, that his first novel contains a strident polemic against religious belief.

Indeed, at first glance, The Book Against God may offer little to recommend itself to Christian readers. It depicts no conversions and answers none of the profound and unsettling questions it poses. Yet it presents a compelling and powerful portrait of religious belief.

We are introduced to Thomas Bunting, the novel’s narrator, four short month’s after the death of his father, an exuberant Anglican priest. Thomas’s wife, a talented pianist, has left him, and he has abandoned a Ph.D. program that he had begun at University College, London, eight years earlier. He has little to show for himself, besides four large notebooks of theological and anti-theological arguments and the story of his unhappy life. He considers the notebooks, a sprawling treatise he calls the “Book Against God,” his life’s work. But his story isn’t as much of an argument against God as it is a memorial of his father, Peter.

Thomas grew up in the cloistered, northern English village of Sundershall, “barely more than a single corridor of low cottages opening out onto the green release of a lawn shaded by three or four unremarkable trees.” Here, in the small parish church, his father dispensed “a Christianity that was inseparable from life. The rhythms of the village, and of the seasons, were also the rhythms of my father ’s ministry: rising Easter, and sun-favoured summer, and census-gathering Christmas, when, as if in mimicry of the story of Caesar Augustus, all the villagers came to be counted and for once the church was truly full.”

Peter Bunting was “a great Christian optimist. . . . He was very erudite, and rather prided himself on his worldly sense of humor, aware that this was rare in priests. For instance, he wrote book reviews for a journal of theology in London, which sent him advance copies of the books. He had removed a sticker from one of these and glued it to the favorite of his six different bibles. It read: ‘This is an advance copy sent in lieu of proof.’” This, Thomas informs us, was “characteristic of his humour and of his faith. He was hospitable to all enemies.”

Thomas never understands the impetus for such hospitality, which he considers dishonest. He is particularly annoyed by his father ’s evasiveness in their arguments. Thomas complains that his father “aerated his faith with so many little holes, so much flexibility and doubt and easygoing tolerance, that he simply disappeared down one of the holes.” Thomas wants more from his father than banter. He wants something solid, something absolute, against which he can define himself and his views.

Nevertheless, he reveres his father ’s learning. “Growing up, I feared him,” he writes, “for there was nothing that he didn’t know. The stock of his knowledge was continually bubbling, and any novelty or spice could be added to it, without a fundamental change to the flavour. An extraordinarily sure mind, calmly enriching itself, very flexible and alert.” In many ways, he wants to be like his father, but he tires of trying: “I want to be what a nineteenth-century thinker called an athlete of reason. But my father always made me feel, as it were, fat and short of breath, because he himself was a kind of athlete of reason while simultaneously a knight of faith.”

So when Thomas begins to entertain doubts about his faith in God, he chooses to hide them from his father and to retreat into his own world. Conscious of his willful deception, he increasingly feels imprisoned by his father: “He was so sure that I would ‘see the light.’ But not if I put huge drapes up against the window! That was where the lying began, you see. My instinct was to hide myself, to hide my thoughts about God. A lie was necessary to protect the truth, that was obvious, as clothes hid the truth of the body.”

Thomas’s original sin leads to a habit of lying and deception. He becomes addicted to the rush he feels when he does it: “That curious ecstasy I felt when I lied was the ecstasy of freedom. I became unknowable, unaccountable at the moment I lied.” His lying, once defensive or protective, becomes frequent and gratuitous, and it inevitably isolates him from his wife and his friends and family.

His decline is accelerated after his father suffers a heart attack. Already dealing with the collapse of his marriage, Thomas must confront his strained relationship with his parents. He dutifully returns to Sundershall for a visit and, with little left for him in London, stays on for several months. Although he attempts to assure his parents that his dissertation is on track and that his life is therefore meaningful in some way, it is difficult for him to conceal his work on the “Book Against God,” which by this time has become an all-consuming passion.

His book, like his lying, is a conscious assertion of his freedom from his parents and the claims of religion. To sustain that freedom, he feels compelled to develop his ideas about theology and to stoke his hostility to Christianity. What begins as the scribbling down of a few familiar objections to religious belief swells to four large notebooks of his thoughts and observations—raw evidence of his failure to tear himself from God, or at least from thoughts of God.

This effort, which ultimately displaces his dissertation and much else besides, is not simply a rebellion from his parents. Thomas’s objections to Christianity are carefully and thoughtfully articulated, often with support from eminent philosophers and literary figures, and the theological questions he poses are among the most difficult to answer. Thomas asks, for instance, “Why should anything be unfair, if God made the world?” To this degree, Thomas is an earnest soul seeking the truth and struggling to come to terms with the injustice and cruelty he sees in life and death, sin and suffering.

Unfortunately, his unrelenting philosophical scrupulousness not only causes him to live a “lie” but also prevents him from accepting the love of those around him. It is his lying, in fact, that alienates the affection of his wife and hastens the end of his marriage. Later, during his visit home, rather than accepting the love and generosity of his parents, he feels “reproached, tormented, seduced, frustrated by the easiness with which they seemed to live.” His bad habits—the lying, the irresponsibility, and the obsession with the “Book Against God”—worsen during these seven months. At one point, the appropriately named Peter, the rock of the village church, reaches out to the appropriately named Thomas, the doubter, and expresses a genuine concern for his spiritual well-being, a concern for once without irony or evasion. But Thomas hides from his father behind the ultimate lie—that he still believes in God.

After his father dies a few short weeks later, he feels that he must tell the plaintive truth to his father to justify himself, to give his lie purpose. Having put so much energy into opposing his father and his religion, he must remember his father to keep the argument, the rivalry with the ingenuous knight of faith, alive. The story he writes, The Book Against God, serves as his account of his father ’s life and character. Without it, there is little to give Thomas’s life meaning and substance, since he has lost everything else.

For us, The Book Against God is something greater. It portrays a man who longs to understand the order of the creation and to know the unknowable mind of God. We admire him for this longing, this high seriousness about the ultimate questions. But we also pity him because, out of obstinacy and fear, he rejects the love of others and the beauty of the world around him. Exchanging the truth for a lie, he prevents himself from finding any answers to the difficult questions he asks.

Thomas’s questioning has been carried on, however, with the assumption that God needs to prove Himself to us. That was Job’s assumption, and he was wrong. We cannot expect theology and philosophy, bound as they are by human reason, to neatly resolve all intellectual and emotional problems. Heinrich Heine once wrote, “As soon as religion seeks help from philosophy, its doom is inevitable. Trying to defend itself, it talks its way further and further into its perdition. Like any other absolutism, religion must not justify itself.” Indeed, God will not justify Himself. But, in hearing the conflicts that arise from that faulty assumption, we may learn many things, as we do in Job, about the seriousness of the struggle for God and the ironic situation of people whose closeness to God is mainly created by the too-insistent questions they ask.

No, this novel is not about the sweetness and light of the Christian faith. But, as its main character points out, “How much stronger, more distinct, more lasting, is the sensation of unhappiness.” Perhaps, by reading this deftly and beautifully written first novel by James Wood, we will prevent Thomas’s failure of imagination from becoming our own.

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